BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
Yet another sign that Arkansas’ softball program is one of the nation’s elite is the fact it is at ESPN’s big diamond party in Florida this weekend.
The unbeaten Razorback are one of 16 teams that ESPN landed to play in the TaxAct Clearwater Invitational, which began Thursday in Clearwater, Fla.
With 10 of the nation’s top 22 teams in the ESPN/Softball USA rankings participating, Arkansas head coach Courtney Deifel – whose team plays its first game Friday – believes the prestigious event resembles a mini-NCAA Tournament.
“That’s exactly what it is and what ESPN set out to do in putting this tournament together,” Deifel said. “You have some really huge postseason-like matchups at the start of the year on a TV platform and starting off the year in the right way.
“We are excited to go. This is our first time that we have played in this tournament, the first time they have worn me down, I guess. I’m just kidding.
“It’s going to great weekend and it is going to be a really great challenge for this team. It will be a good marker of where we are at and what we need to work on and going to be some good sunshine and be a great weekend.”
No. 4 Arkansas (5-0) will begin play Friday with a game against No. 7 Florida State (4-1) at noon CST on ESPNU and will also play a second game Friday against 19 Duke at 5 p.m. on ESPN +.
The Razorbacks will also play a pair of games on Saturday, facing Indiana at noon and a third ranked team in No. 22 Louisiana at 3:30 p.m. with both game being televised on ESPN +
Arkansas will conclude its weekend action with a Sunday 8:30 a.m. game against Nebraska that will be televised on the SEC Network.
Other ranked teams participating in the four-day tournament are No. 2 UCLA, No. 5 Oklahoma State, No. 9 Virginia Tech, No. 12 Alabama, No. 15 Arizona and No. 20 Central Florida.
Unranked teams in the event are Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska and South Florida.
‘It’s a huge compliment to be considered in that field,” Deifel said. “When they are looking at those huge matchups are going to be on the huge platform that they want to put before the softball community, for them to consider us is a huge compliment.”
The Razorback-Seminoles opener should be a great one per Deifel, whose team opened last weekend with a five-game sweep at the Rebels Kickoff in Las Vegas.
“It is a huge matchup right out of the gates in that tournament,” Deifel said. “They have had a very strong program traditionally. (Florida State head coach) Lonnie (Alameda) has done an incredible job. You know when you play them you are always going to get a really well-coached, well-prepared, really complete and balanced team.
“So we have been diving into the match up and it will be a good test for us. Last time we played, I think they got us by one. I think are a good athletic matchup. I think we both have a lot of tools so it is ultimately going to be who plays the best that day. Because I think we are very equally matched.
“…It will be fun. That is what it is all about, to have this kind of match up early to see where we are at. So it will be a really fun way to start the weekend.”
Callie Turner is one of a quintet Arkansas pitchers that went to the mound last week. She made an appearance in three of the five games picking up two wins and a save while pitching 11 innings and not allowing a run.
“Wasn’t she great? Deifel said. “She has just worked her tail off on and off the field at just being the best she can be. She’s always had that in her so it was really fun to see her do her thing and just continue to get more comfortable each pitch she threw.
“I am just really proud of her because she deserves that. She’s worked harder than anyone I have ever coached She deserves it so it is really fun to see her do her thing.”
All-American Chenise Delce (2-0, 0.84), Robyn Herron, Hannah Camenzind and Nikki McGaffin combined to pitch 29 innings for Arkansas with a 0.24 ERA while allowing just one earned run out of their foes’ nine that crossed the plate during the weekend.
“Gosh, I thought that they all did very well,” Deifel said. “When you come out of a weekend like that when you know going in the strength of those teams are their offense…When you look at that and look at how our pitchers and our defense were able to control those offenses, it was huge to come out of that weekend with one earned run.
“They embrace who they are on the staff, they embrace how they compliment each other and they embrace that at the end of the day, we just need to give our team a chance to win and they did that. I thought they were incredibly compose.”
The offense was equally impressive with a .341 team batting average, 11 home runs and 10 double while piling up 51 runs in five games.
Atalyia Rijo had a team-high seven hits, Spencer Priggie 12 RBIs and Priggie and Kristina Foreman and Priggie three home runs each and Cylie Halvorson a pair of blasts and eight RBIs.
All that combined for a banner weekend in Vegas with two wins over Weber State and one each over UNLV, Utah State and Baylor.
“It was huge,” Deifel said. “I would be lying if I said that I thought that was how the weekend was going to go and not because I don’t have a ton of confidence in this team. It’s just they were exactly what you said – dominant.”
But she doesn’t want her team getting too full of itself.
“I really liked how we competed,” Deifel said. “It wasn’t the run differential, but how we were focused the whole weekend. If we take from the…(last) weekend, that we were dominant, then we are coming out of the weekend with the wrong mentality. We are very good and we have a lot of tools, but it was more about they consistent way we competed.”
Photo by John D. James